Thursday, July 19, 2007

Scandinavians in Minnesota: Sweet Land & A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting

Ali Selim's Sweet Land, adapted by Selim and Will Weaver from the latter's short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat," distinguished itself as a word-of-mouth favorite, running for a remarkable 37 consecutive weeks on 300 screens, though the independently-financed film brought in a mere $1.7 million during its exceptional run. Never mind its popular and even critical success - which extended to two Independent Spirit Awards, including best actress for Elizabeth Reaser - Sweet Land may well be one of the worst high-profile independent productions of the past few years. Whether publicly taking this position means that I have forfeited my Minnesotan birthright (as the descendant of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants) remains to be seen.

Sweet Land opens with a framing device (situated in the present) that challenges the decision of a middle-aged man to sell his grandparent's family farm - upon the death of his grandmother - which is located on the tall grass prairies of western Minnesota. From here, we flash back to the 1960s for a second framing segment, wherein the same grandchild mourns the death of his Norwegian grandfather along with his aged grandmother and family friend Frandsen. Having thus described the passing of each, we finally arrive in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Here, a pair of beautiful German mail-order brides (including the aforementioned Reaser as Inge, who is destined to become the family matriarch) reach their Upper Midwest destination. Presently, we are also introduced fleetingly to a forward-thinking socialist promoting universal suffrage, and to the pervasive anti-German sentiment that otherwise defines the prairie community.

This intolerance is greatest, according to the convention that Selim reflexively adopts, in the community Lutheran church, even though Frandsen (Alan Cumming) cheekily mentions that Martin Luther was a German. (For whatever reason, I was reminded of a line in the British Office where David Brent defends pal Finchy's alleged misogyny: "how can I hate women, when my mother is a woman?" Salim and Weaver's screenplay showcases the same intellect throughout as does Brent's best bloke.) However, when faced with the loss of Frandsen's family farm through its foreclosure by the local bank - one thing we are repeatedly reminded of is Selim and Weaver's axiom that "banks and farming don't mix"; whether or not it is possible that the pair know so little about the economics of farming remains to be seen, though their complete lack of understanding of a how a farm is operated (according to my hobby-farmer father and Swede Jay) is manifest elsewhere and indeed suggests that they don't know the first thing about either - the intolerant Lutherans band together to save the aforesaid farm, following the lead of patriarch Olaf (Tim Guinee). Thus, through this social action, the rural Christians are redeemed, as is Inge in their view - that is, as she works for the benefit of the collective.

Ultimately, Sweet Land rates as the most openly socialist American indie in quite some time (along with Half Nelson perhaps) beyond its status as avowedly anti-Christian, so long that is as it doesn't serve the film's social agenda. Indeed, it is compelling to read Sweet Land as a modern American variation on Aleksandr Dovzehnko's sublime tractor epic Earth (1930). However, rather than securing a transcendence through its depictions of the landscape - that in the case of Earth challenge its socialist program - Salim establishes the film's generational component through its adoption of a pair of framing flashbacks. In other words, whereas Dovzhenko adopts a visual poetics worthy of Mizoguchi, Salim favors a Spielbergian manipulation of sentiment that has made Sweet Land more the heir to Saving Private Ryan (1998) than to the best examples of the Soviet cinema. In the tradition of Spielberg, Sweet Land is filmmaking with the heaviest of hands.

Though ostensibly serving rhetorical programs of their own, the works on display in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910 lack the insufferable didacticism of Salim's film. Offering instead the beauty and majesty of nature as source for national pride - hence the exhibition's title - A Mirror of Nature showcases a tradition of landscape painting that is mostly unknown outside of its native Scandinavia. Perhaps the best comparison I can make for my film literate readers is that Scandinavian landscape painting compares to South Korean cinema: while it is influenced by a number of its surrounding national traditions that are well known to the West, the rich tradition of Scandinavian landscape painting, like Korean cinema, remains the purview largely of its national audience and the occasional expert. In each case, a wider audience is well deserved.

Among those works that best exemplify the eponymous aims of the exhibition are a series of works that collectively amount to what might be best described as a tradition of the Norwegian sublime, following closely in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich. Customarily, these works represent a figure or set figures immersed with an enormous, awe-inducing nature. While this effect possesses religious connotations in Friedrich - let alone in progenitors of the American sublime such as in the work Frederick Church - again the exhibition curators have emphasized its nationalistic meaning in works by Norwegians Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke (pictured above). That this characteristic would appear particularly prominent in works by Norwegian artists follows from that nation's tenuous existence during the period (in a union with Sweden under the control of the latter rival state; Norway did not attain full independence until 1905).

If there is a nation that stands out among the five represented (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) it is Norway, not only for its indigenous tradition of the sublime, but also for a set of later works that emphasize a Parisian influence, be it the works of the Scandinavia's best-known painter Edvard Munch, or Harald Sohlberg's art nouveau Flower Meadow in the North (1905, pictured above).

Apart from the Norwegians, perhaps the most interesting national body of work on display is that of the Finnish, and particularly the work Akseli Gallen-Kallela. While Mirror of Nature's Finnish painters otherwise highlight a singular tradition of primitivist folk art, Gallen-Kallela's art may be among the most sophisticated in the exhibition. For instance, in Lake Keitele (1905, pictured above), the painter combines the placid, mirror-like surfaces of the lake with large washes of gray that emphasize the formal properties of the medium. In a second composition, Waterfall of Mantykoski (1892-4), Gallen-Kallela superimposes five vertical bars over the image of a waterfall, thus figuring the harp whose sonority compares to that of the cascade.

Other than the corpuses of Gallen-Kallela and certain of his countrymen, perhaps the most peculiar included in A Mirror of Nature is that of Sweden's Prince Eugen, which is noteworthly less for any representational ticks, than it is for the uncomplicated accomplishment of its royal creator. As the exhibition label states, "The Cloud [1896, pictured above] may at first sight seem to symbolize an ideal summer's day, but its mood is in fact more complex, marked by an undefined tension and a sense of a presence beyond what we are able to see." Along with Carl Larsson (his Open-Air Painter, 1886, is pictured at the beginning of this review), Price Eugen is the finest Swedish painter included in the exhibition and one of a number of revelations awaiting its Minneapolis patrons.

A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910 runs now through September 2 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Following its lone North American venue, A Mirror of Nature will continue its tour of Scandinavia's capital cities. Sweet Land received its DVD release earlier this month.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

New Film: Lady Chatterley

Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley may well have established a new standard in screen Romanticism, and at least indicates the currency of anti-Enlightenment thinking in our own time, as "John Thomas and Lady Jane" did within D. H. Lawrence's. Indeed, Ferran's film suggests the re-occurrence of this system of thinking not only in the aftermath of the First World War - in which Lady Chatterley's narrative is situated - but also in the 1960s (whose floral and free-love iconography are present) and implicitly again, in our own war-defined present. Perhaps the question becomes whether we have experienced any substantive change since the Second World War, Hiroshima and the Holocaust - at least within the Paris-New York axis - though that may be too much to hang on Ferran.

Rather, in spite of a certain historicity that is most evident in the above symbolic forms and even further in a passage adopting the style of home movies (where the medium's more recent specificity is highlighted - otherwise, with the help a minimal amount of imagination, Lady Chatterley's style almost seems commensurate with its historical situation), Lady Chatterley remains a relatively pure instantiation of the much earlier ethos. Throughout, Ferran emphasizes the narrative's rural setting, figuring both her heroine within the natural landscapes, in the vicinity of the gamekeeper's - her lover's - cabin, and commonly, elements of the environment itself isolated in close-up. Moreover, when finally the eponymous Lady Chatterley (César winning best actress Marina Hands) and the aforementioned Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h) finally do couple, Ferran manages to impute an incongruity to the garments they wear, in the face of the uncultivated nature. Of course, the pair will soon lose their apparel altogether, culminating in an ism-defining nude chase through an overgrown wood.

In short, Ferran's narrative imitates the conventional return to an animal nature from a constrictive civilization that was de rigueur within Romanticism. Exemplifying the scientific rationalism against Lady Chatterley is positioned, beyond the context of the recently-concluded Great War, is Lady Chatterley's husband Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), who is not only wheelchair bound but further impotent as a consequence of the combat. In a particularly telling sequence, Clifford, in a new, motor-powered chair, attempts to climb a grassy hill with the assistance of neither his wife nor of the close-by gamekeeper. Unable to make it up the incline, he is assisted by the pair. In this way, not only his sexual inadequacy figured, but, following closely on the heels of a conversation with his wife when the latter advocates socialism, the powerless of the ruling class without the gamekeepers' and more directly, the soot-footed miners who occasionally appear in Ferran's narrative. To put it another way, Lady Chatterley showcases the congruence of left-wing politics and the Romanticism that defines the narrative. Undoubtedly, the critical enthusiasm for Ferran's film, both in France and most recently in New York, is a by-product of this seductive, politically-correct convergence - and again perhaps further confirmation of Romanticism's contemporary salience.

Still, speaking of the narrative, Lady Chatterley is most clearly a work of erotic cinema, though an instantiation with implications for the politics of the personal. During the first act of coitus, Ferran tightly frames her female heroine in close-up, registering her largely intractable expression throughout the act. In this way, Ferran maintains a system of identification that largely sutures Lady Chatterley's perspective by combining frontal framing and inserts of her visual point-of-view, or, as in an opening conversation recounting the horrors of World War I, her mindset via auditory means. At the same time, Ferran does not limit the viewer to the lead's psychology, but figures that of Parkin and those who share the Lady's estate.

Nonetheless, Lady Chatterley is dominated by long shot/long takes, lit by sensitively rendered natural light, which positions Ferran's film as the inheritor to a naturalist tradition in post-nouvelle vague French color cinematography that is perhaps best exemplified by the cinema of Claude Sautet (Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud, 1995) and André Téchiné (Wild Reeds, 1994). Perhaps the film's general suitability to its period follows from that era's proximity to the late 19th century visual tradition that Ferran's camera simulates. Similarly, Lady Chatterley shares in the slower pacing that is characteristic of many films in that tradition - often for the better - though in its case the value of this is perhaps a little less certain with a 168 minute running time that feels not a minute shorter.

Monday, July 09, 2007

New Animation: Ratatouille (co-written with Lisa K. Broad)

Writer-director Brad Bird's Ratatouille opens with a talking head from food critic Anton Ego, in which the Peter O'Toole-voiced pundit disputes legendary TV food personality Gusteau's (Brad Garrett) claim that everyone can cook. Enter the film's protagonist rat Remy (Patton Oswalt), an admirer of human beings - contrary to his father's wisdom - and their ability to not only survive but also to "experience and create," as well as the possessor of a very un-rodent like refined palette. With the latter acumen and the company of the hovering, transparent ghost of the late Gusteau, Remy endeavors to prove his maestro's point, first in his furtive visits to widow's farm house, and subsequently in the kitchen of Gusteau's eponymous Parisian eatery. (Each offers a similarly disgusting visual of a space besieged by the Remy and his kin.)

Once in the kitchen of Gusteau's, the suddenly silent rodent forges a puppetmaster-marionette relationship with gangly new hire Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano), himself completely helpless in the kitchen. Here, Remy fulfills the role of manipulator, thus securing an allegorical meanining in their relationship that is as pertinent to animated cinema than it is to its conventional photography-based format. Similarly, the licensing of Gusteau's image for microwavable burritos and bagel bites figures Bird's own creative product over and above the mass-produced items (animated and otherwise) from which Ratatouille is distingusihed.

Of course, the fact that Ratatouille lacks a human hand in its actualization potentially problematizes its anti-assembly line ethos. To this point, Bird's insistence that anyone can create - which is subsequently highlighted in a second speech by Ego where he notes that he saw something completely new in the kitchen - is itself a defense of the creative work accomplished in its this piece of computer-based animation. In Ratatouille we have a creator who is not human, but who has nonetheless created a work of a superlative aesthetic character that is simultaneously (and against expectations perhaps) warm. The true measure of computer-based animation is not simply its graphic successes, but moreover its status as a truly human art.

If therefore it seems as though Bird has made a bold claim for his own creation, fortunately for the director his filmmaking talents are more than equal to the task described in the film's rhetoric. Indeed, the director of the fine The Iron Giant (1999) and the extraordinary The Incredibles (2004), to date the finest work of American animation thus far this decade (in the opinion of Anderson), has again succeeded in creating a work of admirable visual narration. As with the latter in particular, Bird again adopts a facsimile of his protagonists' point-of-view, viscerally following his minute, fleet-footed hero as he races in and out of the tight spaces for which Bird's medium seems particularly well-suited. However, it is less his action direction capabilities (as advanced as they may be) then his attention to the details of his subjects: to the rats wet hair - this is the film where Pixar has finally overcome its textural limitations, achieving an unforeseen lightness; to the plating of an updated variation on the film's epnoymous dish that truly underscore Bird's artistry. Surely, Ratatouille is a work of total art. It is the rare piece of animation that is not intended primarily to sell toys.

Then again, Ratatouille is equally a work of premiere entertainment. In fact, when Ego receives the aforementioned plate, an old favorite transporting him back to the time of his childhood and memories of his mother, Ego drops his notebook and simply savors the dish before him. If Bird is addressing critics directly, he suggests that ultimate justification of Ratatouille like the eponymous plate on the dish, is enjoyment. The first rule is that the food tastes good, and that popular cinema be entertaining. With this baseline necessity, the aesthetic elaborations of each may be made.

As with the director's ode to human excellence The Incredibles, there may be no American filmmaker today as devoted to human greatness as is Bird. The irony, of course, is that Bird remains likewise the leading artist in the cinema's least human incarnation.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

In Memory of Edward Yang (1947-2007)

Courtesy of GreenCine Daily, Taiwanese director Edward Yang passed away earlier today at age 59. Best known in the U.S. for his 2000 masterpiece, Yi Yi, which is this writer's choice for the best film made thus far this decade, Yang directed only seven features and an eighth segment for a portmanteau feature over his three decade career. Yang was born on November 6, 1947 in Shanghai. After moving to Taiwan shortly after the 1949 revolution on the mainland, Yang and his family (like fellow master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien) moved to Taiwan. Yang would later spend time in the United States, where he studied electrical engineering and thereafter filmmaking at USC (where he dropped out), before returning to his adopted homeland.

Having returned to Taiwan, Yang, along with Hou, spearheaded the "Taiwanese New Wave," which yielded a number of the finest films made over the course of the past twenty-five years. After contributing to In Our Time (1982), Yang released the seminal That Day, On the Beach (1983) a year later. However, it was with the director's 1985 Taipei Story, starring Hou himself, that Yang was established as one of the greatest directors of the late twentieth century. In Taipei Story, one of the three or four best films of the 1980s, Yang asserted his place as the contemporary heir to the 1960s cinema of alienation, introducing a formal rigor (one might be tempted even to see his engineering training as a formative influence on his technical precision) that has elevated Yang among his international art cinema colleagues.

After 1986's The Terrorizer, a strong film by any measure, except for perhaps against the films that preceded and followed it in the Yang's oeuvre, the director's next film was A Brighter Summer Day, which was in the opinion of many (myself included) the director's best, and, not to sound like a broken record, one of the very best films of its or any decade. As it happens, I was fortunate enough to see A Brighter Summer Day during my undergraduate years - spring of 2001 - though it did take something of heroic effort to attend the film: it screened one night only in Chicago, which at the time was three-and-a-half hours away from home. Knowing that it might be my only chance to see the picture (having discovered it through Jonathan Rosenbaum) I drove the seven hours round-trip on a school night to see Yang's sublime masterpiece. Suffice it to say that it remains one of my most precious film-going experiences.

Following a pair of comedies in the mid-90's, A Confucian Confusion (1994) and Mahjong (1996), the director made the third supreme masterpiece of his career, Yi Yi. To summarize, quoting myself from an earlier post,
'Yi Yi contains more than virtually any other film ever made. What is meant by [this] is not excess, but rather the full scope of existence: comedy and tragedy, happiness and sadness, feeling and empathy, the physical and the metaphysical, art and life. Indeed, Yi Yi represents nothing more than it does a prayer, offered on the part of its maker for its many characters who continue to make the same mistakes in their lives, generation after generation. After all, the literal translation of the title is 'One One,' intimating precisely this sort of repetition, which is likewise picked up in the names of the younger generation's protagonists, Ting Ting and Yang Yang. The latter, a clear stand-in for the director, becomes a photographer in order that he might show people the half of life that they do not normally see: in this case, the backs of their heads. His engagement is thus art, as his older sister, who repeats the same romantic mistakes as her father, chooses to speak to her comatose grandmother, who thusly becomes a stand in for god. At one point she even breaks from her coma (her silence) to comfort the young girl, even if it remains unclear as to whether this represents a literal occurrence. Either way, Yang's is a film that intentionally confronts as much of life as possible, offering open conclusions to the eternal questions it raises.'
Surely few filmmakers have ever made films that approach Yang's in terms both of their formal richness and in their depth of insight. Though film lovers everywhere should mourn the fact that we will never get the chance to see a new masterpiece by Yang - though for many, myself included, the difficulty in securing some of the above titles will mean that the joys of his work are still to come - the corpus he has left is one one of greatest we have ever been blessed with. Edward Yang will be greatly missed.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

On Connoisseurship (& the Achievement of Valeska Grisebach's Longing)

In a recent exchange in the comments section of the excellent group blog Termite Art, my good friend and site co-founder Matthew Singer and I had an extended exchange on the relative merits of reviewing films like The Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). At the time neither of us had seen the film, though at least in my view it nonetheless could serve as emblematic of all supposedly "critic-proof" films whose audience is assured more by the popularity of its comic source, the film franchise to which it belongs and most importantly the advertising dollars spent to generate interest than to the response of the critics. Admittedly, my commentary suffered from a naivete that Mr. Singer rightly pointed out. In my advocacy of ignoring films like The Rise of the Silver Surfer - assuming that it is indeed not of interest - I suggested another film that I had yet to see, Valeska Grisebach's Longing (Sehnsucht, 2006), as more deserving of print publications' attention. For this, Matt again called me out, asking who was to be the "arbiter" of what is "interesting." In my opinion, both Matt (host of IFC News and Internet film critic - and for those who have not read him, Matt is a very talented critic in the Roger Ebert mold, in my opinion at least) and myself (film studies PhD and Internet film critic - though less talented I'm afraid) qualify, inasmuch as we share a formal training in the discipline, and possess a discernment that follows from it and also (and perhaps more importantly) from instinct.

In retrospect, I should have expected the reaction I received on Termite Art: what I was advocating - and indeed I have come to realize that this is the driving force for all my work in the field of cinema studies - was connoisseurship, which is as uncommon in the field of cinema studies today as it is in the discipline of art history, where the term has been used pejoratively since the 1970s. Connoisseurship is viewed with skepticism by both the defenders of popular and "low" culture on the one hand - primarily for its elitism - and ideologically-minded critics and scholars on the other (for whom the determination of a work's value based on aesthetic critique is itself ideologically loaded). When one does see advocacy in film criticism currently, it is for political engagement, not for the determining of the status of the work of art over and against those of other works. Either art is fundamentally about pleasure, and therefore quality is subjective, as is I believe true for the modern-day defenders of popular culture, or culture is principally a tool for both political progress and regimes of suppression, shifting a work's value from criterion of aesthetic quality to those of political expediency.

As a connoisseur I deny both. For me, art enriches, it can instruct and it can improve. It helps us to see, and even more, to think. This is not to say that any work needs to say something novel or complex. In fact, I tend to subscribe to the theory that many of the best works are themselves mirrors, that they show us ourselves and that we are not alone in what we think or what we feel. In other words, they show us the truth - which as we all know continues to be under assault from those who would deny that such thing exists.

Moreover, works that do this are rare indeed. While, the Internet, an all-region DVD player and a small amount of disposable income has basically put the corpus of an entire art within reach of the spectator, the ever-expanding number of choices that one faces militates against seeing something worth the viewer's time. This again is where I believe the connoisseur comes in: namely in directing the interested spectator to works that will have an effect of enrichment. Above I mentioned that I had yet to see Longing when I used it as a counter-example; I based its utility on the high regard it found last year among British critics (and the certainty that few readers would have heard of the film). Having since viewed Grisebach's work let me redouble my advocacy: Longing is exactly the sort of film that critics have the responsibility to lead their spectators to, so long as they believe film is an art and that art can elevate.

What is it one might ask that separates Longing from other works currently in the marketplace? (Usually Tativille commits itself to this precise task without the meta-commentary; in future I will continue to do exactly that.) To begin with, Longing secures an emotional complexity in its female performances that is rare indeed - in one particularly remarkable moment, upon discovering that her new lover does not remember that they slept together, we see one of Grisebach's heroines masking her fleeting joy behind an expression of jubilation. She has to show her new lover her satisfaction while hiding the sadness that his question has wrought. We see in this instance the intimations of what her life may have been, that perhaps such opportunities are not so common with her and when they do seem to occur, that they evaporate just as quickly. In other words, Grisebach gives us a mirror.

Then again, in her male lead, we have a cipher. We understand what he is thinking as much as his wife (the film's third principle) does, which is to say that his psychology is a source of mystery. As such Grisebach reverses the logic of most films that employ this epistemological pattern - wherein the woman is the greater source for mystery. Further it is truly his body, his face that is the more acutely fetishized: in another of the great moments in the cinema of the past year, Grisebach frames her male lead dancing to a Robbie Williams song in tight medium close-up, from his shoulders up. He closes his eyes and sways to the music, reminding us how young he is. Truly, he has become the object of the spectator's - and shortly as we see the waitress/his future lover's as well. In short, Longing, helps to see both the complexity of its very real characters and also the narrative systems it is responding to and revising.

We also see a world that is at once quite foreign - small-town, rural Germany - and still quite familiar to this viewer at least. Grisebach shows us a place/a community that most viewers of her film will never see in person. This I would submit is its own justification. At the same, and thus expanding the work's value further, her rendering of the landscape and particular the sensitivity she shows for light - particularly that light just after sunset - shows a nature that may be very familiar to viewers, even if it is rarely detailed on screen. Longing indeed evokes a feeling of place that is dependent on the spectator's awareness of this time of day at a particular time of year. The tactile feeling of place that accompanies this knowledge therefore becomes an end of Grisebach's work, open to those with a familiarity for such places, just as her characters introduce us to real, albeit complex emotions. To see ourselves and the world we live in we as spectators do need a certain degree of sensitivity.

In sum, Longing proposes to show us truths, emotional and natural, that it relies upon us to confirm through our experience. Then again, its situation - an instance of adultery and its consequences for a marriage - are unfamiliar to many a spectator. In this regard, Grisebach allows for the possibility of a moral truth, though suffice it to say that she ultimately leaves it open to the spectator to determine the film's conclusion. In the film's closing, semi-diegetic (as my viewing companion Lisa Broad so eloquently put it) scene, Grisebach makes us aware of her own agency - thus highlighting the film's construction - in the person of a tween, even as she establishes the film's open ending. As such, Longing asks us to decide for ourselves; it raises a scenario and invites its spectators to find a solution. It asks us to engage with the work of art, while delineating the roles of filmmaker and spectator. She makes it abundantly clear how her film is constructed, while preserving her narrative world.

This active role for the spectator is essential to the connoisseurship I have above highlighted as my methodology. When viewed as a source of pleasure foremost, passivity is the rule. When viewed through an ideological lens, the artist's manipulation, for better or for worse, becomes key. However, when art is considered for what it shows us, the spectator becomes cardinal. This I believe is a verification of the above system's merit: that compels its viewer to think, to remember and even to judge.